Even as China enjoys the wealth and advancements rapid industrialization has brought to its country, it is beginning to grapple with dire costs to its environment, including some of the world’s most polluted air and waters; plummeting fisheries; and disappearing wild places. When previously wild places are logged, farmed, divided by roads, and consumed by cities, the creatures that live there disappear — especially when those creatures command a high price on the black market. For China, that means its rarest and most iconic wild animals, including the Siberian tiger, the giant panda, Amur leopards, the Tibetan antelope, and the Asian elephant, are about to disappear forever.
Or maybe, not so fast. China is in the process of developing its first national park system, modeled after the U.S. system that has traditionally protected its wildest and most beautiful places for future generations of people — and for the wildlife that depends on these places for food and habitat.
China has pledged to develop a new national park that will be roughly 60 percent larger than U.S. Yellowstone National Park to provide habitat for two critically endangered cats, the Siberian tiger, and the Amur leopard. The 14,600-square-mile park will be located in the country’s northeast provinces, along the border of Russia and North Korea. A plan is expected to be complete by 2020.
The wild Siberian tiger population had dropped to as few as six in 1998, prompting conservation efforts that included a logging ban in the area. In 2015, the population had risen to 27. The Amur leopard, meanwhile, had been nearly hunted to extinction as well, with only 30 left in 2007. Today there are almost twice as many, thanks to conservation efforts by the World Wildlife Fund and others. For these populations to stabilize, the animals must be protected from hunting and their territory must be protected from human development.
Poaching remains a problem. Traditional Chinese medicine uses tiger parts to treat a wide range of maladies; it is believed that the animal’s strength and vitality will transfer to the human that consumes it. Western doctors have found no evidence to support these claims and many medicines, including ones as simple and widespread as aspirin, which, like tiger bones, is used to treat inflammation, achieve the same intended goals. Tiger bones have long been used as a folk remedy used to treat impotence; researchers have noted that Chinese men have been happy to switch to Viagra for that particular malady.
A video of Siberian tigers chasing a drone recently took social media by storm, attesting to the fascination we have with these beautiful and rare creatures. However, upon further scrutiny, it was revealed that the video was taken at a game park in Harbin City, which sells tiger furs and bones.
“These facilities breed tigers for tourist entertainment while they’re alive, and their parts are reportedly used for luxury and medicinal products,” said Ben Pearson from World Animal Protection. The Chinese government instituted a ban on the domestic sale of tiger bones in the 1990s, but loopholes in the law and a continued demand for the bones and other body parts have made captive tiger farms a widespread problem in China.
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